Over the last few months Left Foot Forward has been critical of a number of stories on welfare in the right wing tabloids. This is not just a matter of correcting inaccuracies and misrepresentation, important as these tasks are. These stories don’t come from nowhere – however misleading, they usually have some basis in fact, and the facts are generally selected and provided by someone other than the hack whose byline graces the story.
In these cases a large share of the odium for misleading the public should fall on whoever has briefed the press, and the origins of misleading stories merit as much attention as their content.
The ‘dark arts’ of briefing the press are in fact pretty rudimentary. To see how it’s done, here’s a step by step guide to planting a story on welfare when you don’t have any new information to offer:
• Step 1: Choose an unpopular benefit and an angle you haven’t used too recently. Now download some publicly available figures here or here to form the basis for the headline. Choose the biggest figures you can find;
• Step 2: Write these up using a phrase such as ‘figures reveal’ or ‘it has emerged’, implying that this is new information;
• Step 3: Link the figures to stories which you’ve previously managed to plant – think of each story as part of a greater whole, a big mosaic of misrepresentation;
• Step 4: Pad your briefing with some more detailed figures, however irrelevant. This makes it look as if somebody has carried out some serious research;
• Step 5: If you work for the government – and let’s not be too coy here, you probably do – stick in a reaction quote from a minister.
You now have the skeleton of a story to brief to the press. When written up, the result might look something like this from Wednesday’s Mail. The headline is:
“The 90,000 young Britons out of work on sickness benefit”
That’s the rounded up figure of 85,500 people aged 18-24 receiving Incapacity Benefit as downloaded from the Department for Work and Pensions tabulation tool, where they have been publicly available for months.
But this is news because (Step 2):
“Nearly 90,000 young Britons are languishing on incapacity benefit rather than taking up jobs or training, figures reveal today.”
Or as the Express put it:
“A SHOCKING 86,000 young adults are on benefits designed for people who are too sick to work, official figures showed yesterday.”
Here’s step 3, the link to and reinforcement of an earlier story:
“Last week it emerged that since 1997, around 600,000 people have never had a job after leaving full-time education.”
“Birmingham, parts of Scotland and the North of England have the most young incapacity benefit claimants, the latest figures showed.”
And finally, the reaction quote:
“Chris Grayling said:
‘These figures are further evidence that too many young people have just been left behind.’”
Now let’s do something which whoever briefed the press didn’t do and (rightly) counted on the journalists not doing either: let’s try to understand these figures.
About 70% of the young people in these figures are severely disabled – severely enough to be in receipt of Disability Living Allowance. The figures don’t show “young Britons … languishing on incapacity benefit rather than taking up jobs or training” – they primarily concern young severely disabled Britons whose choices with regard to jobs or training are heavily curtailed by their conditions and by social attitudes towards disability.
Among the 20,000 who had been on IB for five years or more, who featured heavily in Wednesday’s stories, DLA recipients account for nearly 90%.
This doesn’t mean all or any of those who are not receiving DLA are ‘able to work’, nor does it mean there are no DLA recipients in this group who could work under different circumstances (although for many, the circumstances would have to be very different). But the fact that 70% of the people referred to in these headlines are on the severe end of the spectrum of disability is clearly relevant to their employment status.
Not for the first time, figures which are primarily about severely disabled people are being used to underpin exaggerated claims about voluntary self-exclusion from the labour market. The central narrative which the coalition has been using to underpin its welfare cuts – that this is a response to a build-up of long-term welfare dependency under Labour – is crucially dependent on airbrushing out people at the severe end of the disability spectrum.
Wednesday’s reaction quote from Emma Boon of know-nothing pressure group the TaxPayers’ Alliance unintentionally shows just how tenuous the links on which that narrative depends really are:
“Not all of these young people will be unable to work. If we don’t overhaul Incapacity Benefit now, taxpayers will be left to pay for a generation that’s never had a job or help to get one.”
That mindless leap from data on young disabled people to ‘a generation that’s never had a job’ exemplifies what the briefing behind Wednesday’s stories was intended to achieve.
As the evidence on the severity of impairment faced by large numbers of incapacity benefit claimants continues to mount, more stories of this type can be expected – after all, it’s not as if faking them up and planting them demands much in the way of time, effort or expertise.
The figures quoted in the press are for May 2010. Incapacity Benefit for new claims was replaced with Employment Support Allowance in October 2008. So the figures relate to claims which had been running for some time, since October 2008 or earlier.
This is important, because the duration of claims for IB, and its successor ESA, is related to the severity of the impairment of recipients, as indicated by whether they are also entitled to Disability Living Allowance. Table 1 below shows the relationship, using data from May 2008 (this specific breakdown is not available for later years).
Among young IB claimants who had been claiming for less than a year, only 5.6% were also receiving DLA, but among those claiming for more than a year, nearly two thirds were in receipt of DLA, and for those claiming for five years of more, nearly 90%.
Incapacity benefit claims, age 18-24, May 2008
Duration of claim
< 1 year
≥ 1 year
≥ 2 years
≥ 5 years
|IB claims (000s)||41.1||101.3||81.6||34.3|
|of which receiving DLA (000s)||2.3||66.4||60.4||30.5|
|% receiving DLA||5.6||65.5||74.0||88.9|
Source: DWP 5% Tabulation tool
The figures reported on Wednesday only concerned young people who had been claiming for more than 19 months (people in May 2010 who had been claiming before October 2008). Obviously, a large share of this group will also be on DLA: based on the data from 2008, somewhere between 65.5% and 74%.
Hat-tip: Nicola Smith.